Why Oprah Isn’t Enough to Fix OWN

by Danielle C. Belton

Oprah Winfrey has returned to television, but I don’t think she returned in the way she wanted.

After all, when she retired from her daily talk show to focus on new cable network OWN, it wasn’t because she wanted to revise her already insanely successful TV career on a network that gets demonstrably fewer views and media attention.

With “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” for decades, she was able to reach and influence millions because her syndicated program was everywhere, airing on major networks available in nearly every American household that has a TV set.  OWN was about something new. Which is probably why she made her new show an interview show and declared it “The Next Chapter.”

But “The Next Chapter” isn’t appearing from the same position of strength and influence the first chapter ended on. While the debut did well for the network, because it’s cable and not syndication, the numbers paled in comparison to her original show. It’s a sign that Winfrey is adapting to a new environment – trying to figure out the magical mix that makes a network.

OWN originally was branded as a sort of “self-help” network, but the shows – unlike the spin-offs she spearheaded for Dr. Phil and Rachel Ray – floundered. Even bringing Rosie O’Donnell back, once her competition in the 1990s, did little to nothing to generate the kind of hype and buzz Oprah was used to. Largely because O’Donnell’s image had changed dramatically since her days of crushing on Tom Cruise while lending her name to her own magazine. No one remembered the fun, good natured host of yore, but the conspiracy theory spouting former “The View” host who got in lengthy fights with a bloviating Donald Trump.

I think a lot of the disappointment in OWN’s programming isn’t so much that people like or dislike self-help TV or like or dislike O’Donnell or wanted to see more or less Oprah. The problem is – Oprah Winfrey is magic to her viewing public and when she said she was creating a network with her name on it that’s what people expected – they expected her.

Her ideas. Her influence. Her interests, but reborn through a variety of network programming.

Magic is more than trotting out future Dr. Oz clones and upbeat but familiar feeling reality shows when your competition is hysterical theatrics of “Bad Girls Club” and “Dance Moms.”

  • African Mami

    Ever heard of a product cycle?! Oprah has reached her maturity-saturation point, as a product to her beloved audiences. Which means, even if she were to higher the best executives in town or in the entire universe, performance levels would still remain iite at best. She is still minting money nonetheless, but she has lost her appeal. Only God, can do wonders for her at this point. Best of luck to a woman who taught me that you can be a billionaire, even your hair refuses to comb straight in da early morn.

  • fuchsia

    Oprah might just be better at hosting her own show than running an entire network. I think she could benefit from younger creative types to reach a broader audience. I loved every single show on the network last season EXCEPT for Rosie I can’t stand that show. Master Class is back and it’s a wonderful show. Super Soul Sunday is my ish, Gale King in the morning was always worth tuning in for, and Lisa Ling does a fabulous job on Our America. I’m already an avid viewer and fan of the network, but there is definitely still room and time for improvement. She needs to think outside the box if she wants this to really be successful on a larger scale.

  • DBG

    I kind of disagree, I think it is the business model of the network that is failing OWN. I’ve watched enough of the network to know that she’s VERY prominent on the network but the fact that it’s a premium channel turns off a lot of people who for 25 years were able to see her for the price of basic cable or the HD scrambler if you didn’t have cable. MANY of fans basically baulked at the prospect of having to get cable or pay an extra $20/month to see her network. I believe THAT is and HAS been the major business floundering to date.

    She actually produces quality shmock, but if I hadn’t already had the pacakge that grandfathered in OWN, I wouldn’t pay for that crap either.

  • http://nesheaholic.com LaNeshe

    I think what makes OWN different than Oprah’s show as far as numbers/ratings is that it is not readily available to the masses as her show was. I’ve never watched OWN, because it’s a premium channel from my cable provider.

  • Mimi

    @DGB-I disagree. When Oprah had her daily talk show, her audience was predominantly middle/upper-middle white women. These women probably already have premium cable so paying to see her was never an issue for them. The problems with OWN are two-fold. One, it’s still relatively new. It usually takes new channels on cable a 4-5 years to find their audience. CNN did horribly bad the first few years after its launch. And two, OWN NEEDS MORE ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING!!!!!!!!! Who wants to watch old episodes of Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Say Yes to the Dress. Suze Orman etc.?

    And to the author, your dreams of Oprah turning OWN into a real channel may be a little too lofty as I don’t think that that’s Oprah’s vision for this channel. If it doesn’t involve that touchy-feely “live your best life” crap that she’s been spouting for years, then she doesn’t want to do it. I mean, the woman won’t even call her reality shows reality shows. She calls them docu-series. And speaking of her “docu-series”, who wants to see a reality show about the Judds? Who wants to see a reality show with Tatum O’Neal and her bat-crazy daddy? Not I. Oprah’s going to have to change her thinking if she wants OWN to be a success.

  • AJ

    Well, I have own as part of mt regular DirectTV package, and I think she should stick to the Reality Genre. Her MasterClass series, Don’t Tell the Bride, Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, and Party at Tiffany’s are really good – and are with the times. Everybody does Reality shows now, and hers are as good as the others. I think her success with OWN will come if she does a mix of high-quality Reality shows, and plays her movies and others. I mean if TV One is still around, then I know OWN has a chance. All TVOne does is play every Black movie that ever went straight to DVD and it hasn’t tanked yet.

    She should drop Rosie O’donnell and all the Discovery Health Channel spinoffs, and then she’ll be fine.

  • Maat

    I think you’ve hit on a number of great ideas for Oprah to do. I agree with your article 100%. A late night Chapelle show would be awesome and her version of 60 minutes/investigative news program would be even better. I don’t think the OWN executives are being innovative and thinking creatively about how to extend her brand to the next level. I really liked the Life Class series. I was glued to the TV at 9 pm each night to watch them.

  • DBG

    “When Oprah had her daily talk show, her audience was predominantly middle/upper-middle white women. These women probably already have premium cable so paying to see her was never an issue for them.”

    I respectfully disagree with that generalization which actually has been proven NOT to be the case. Again, they may have cable, that DOES NOT translate to them owning premium cable nor does that mean they will buy and ADDITIONAL premium package in order to watch OWN.


    True, it needs more. However, like you just stated, it takes time for ANY new network to develop new programming. How many reruns of Hanna Barbara cartoons were rebroadcast on Cartoon Network before they FINALLY started showing and producing new series? Almost SEVEN years. Also, CNN is not a great comparison because you’re talking apples to oranges in business strategies AND CNN is not on a premium package AND was up against already established 24-hour news cycle networks. The OWN also is up against channels like the Martha Stewart Channel, WE, LOGO, Lifetime and other non-premium channels (I think LOGO is actually) that ALREADY are established.

    I do contend that my network statuses may be slightly off because I pretty much subscribe to just about all premium packages through my service.

  • Mimi

    @DBG-I just threw CNN out there as an example because I remember reading an article about how it took a while for them to gain an audience, but I think it could be said for any genre of cable station.

    Also, while me saying that her audience was predominantly white, I am speculating because I just didn’t see a huge number of blacks in her audience and I personally know no black people who watched her show religiously (which doesn’t mean much since I don’t know a lot of people to begin with). But you stated my generalization has been proven untrue. What proof do you have as I would like to see who her main audience was? Is there an article or something that you have access to? If so, please provide the link because I’m interested to read it.

    And finally, I’m going to assume (I know, that’s bad) that if you’re upper middle class, you have premium cable. We could argue that one all day long but it’s just hard for me to believe that people with a lot disposable income, (which I believe was her core audience, but I don’t have proof of that) have premium cable.

  • gmarie

    I have to agree with DBG on this one. IT doesn’t matter if her assumed core audience is middle class or well to do the bottom line is people now having to pay for something they’ve never had to pay for in the past. Even “well to do” people like to save a buck here and there, that’s how they KEEP their money friends. Maybe OWN should have started off their first year or so as a non premium channel just to give people a chance to see what she has in store, introduce the original programming and of course get viewership up. The amount of companies willing to buy ad space on Oprah’s NEW network would have paid for itself several times over. Based on what I’m hearing in the comments I wouldn’t pay to see old episodes of Dr. Phil either! As much as I love say yes to the dress there is no way I’d pay to watch it when TLC runs marathons almost weekly.

  • J

    I have to side with Mimi. And I’d also like to see proof that middle-aged, middle-class white women weren’t the bulk of her audience. That’s certainly the audience she kept aiming for. How many black topics that reached the mainstream ever pop-up on her show? Almost none. But she had time for The Sound of Music reunion and plugging Roseanne’s reality show – which was pulled very quickly. I’ve never heard/seen black women talking about Oprah except when certain shows happened like the Iyanla Vanzant show or reunion of The Color Purple actors or Chris Rock re: Good Hair “doc”. I also don’t think that “paying” for the show was a turn-off. Her audience and potential audience most likely already have cable. It’s not like getting Showtime or HBO. An extra $10 a month for the package including the network isn’t going to hurt those viewers. Now there are some areas where her network isn’t available – so being on cable would be a factor in that situation.

    Also disagree with the article. Oprah never intended (and will never intend) to have a network like that and for any of the focus to fall on black people. There are plenty of popular black self help gurus and news reporter but none on the network. I thought the whole 2 part Vanzant shows was leading to a Vanzant’s show on OWN. Instead she just made one appearance on Master Class. Oprah would also stay as far away as possible from controversy so forget Dave Chappelle or any other suggestions. With black people bailing her butt out by watching Sweetie Pie’s, I hope she might go in that direction -but not holding my breath especially after her revamped talk show brought in huge ratings. I suspect her old (white) core audience tuned in for that. Don’t know too many black folks who give a damn about Steve Tyler. That also proves her audience held out due to the shows – not because it’s a “pay” channel.

  • http://www.womenaregamechangers.com Women Are Gamechangers

    This articles is exactly what I was thinking OWN would be about. I was so excited for this network. I love Welcome to Sweetie Pies and watch other shows on occassion but I just can’t watch 24/7 self help. I want some variety especially since BET is no longer geared towards uplifting us or educating us. I do think Oprah will start making some more strategic moves that works for the network and appeals to a greater audience base.

  • MP

    OWN is not a premium channel in every market. It’s definitely under my cable provider’s basic cable package. This factor is provider-specific.

    Also, if the network created programming that spawned buzz, her base would do what they need to in order to get the network. Poor people did not keep her talk show successful. The viewer homes visited on the show were not all humble.

  • ruggie

    I agree with DBG. No one wants to pay premium rates to see someone they used to watch for free.

    As for audience, let’s not forget that Oprah’s talk show followed the daytime soap block, feeding from those viewers. In fact, there’s been a move by ABC soap fans to get those shows put on OWN! Oprah’s talk show was about sharing information and perspectives with a home-based female domestic audience (ie, middle America, middle class housewives).

    The OWN channel’s life-changing messages are part of Oprah’s personal mission, but her talk show audience may not be interested in that, any more than the movie “Beloved” which was improperly mass-released to Oprah’s talk show audience when it should have been given a limited release to a literary, black audience.

    Maybe Oprah knows this, and wants premium rates to push the channel to the self-help community. Here’s the glitch: will fans of self-help and life-changing care about seeing the celebrities that OWN is pushing? Or will a hunger for quality programming (Sweetie Pies, Roots) amongst blacks push OWN to become the quality black channel that BET never was?

  • TheBestAnonEver, Part 2

    What do you mean by bulk? For most shows, white people will make up the majority of the audience because they are 77% of the population.

  • Hope

    Here’s a different angle. When Oprah leads off her on signature show “next chapter,” with Steven Tyler, I question whether she’s trying to make a point or just make a profit. If it’s a point, than this confused man with a sordid past makes me question Oprah’s choice.

    If it’s a profit, and ratings are the goal, then by all means. With Tyler’s legion of “idol” followers giving his stagnant career a pulse, then she went for the “show me the money” angle.

    As Oprah is fond of saying, “what’s your intention?” My read it that she compromised and further clouded the direction of OWN. And at times it was hard to sit through two-hours of self serving compliments & gratification like “you and I are peripheral visionaries.” Yet this program was a signature-moment for Oprah, through her first original programming on her network, to define her new vision called OWN.

    Ironically, even the profit motive seems to fall short as OWN’s ratings on this episode fail to reach even the level of Oprah’s just cancelled syndicated show on free TV — Nate Berkus.

    Yet I always an filled with Hope.

  • Wellnow

    I think she might find more success on OWN than through her talk show. Yes the audience for OWN is much smaller, but it is a PAYING audience and they watch her content 168 hours a week instead of only 5 hours a week that they watched her talk show.

  • Wellnow

    Most of oprah’s talk show audience was white because most of America is white, but blacks were vastly overrepresented in her talk show audience. I read that blacks are 12% of America but were 25% of the audience for her talk show, probably even more after she elected Obama.

    I think her network was aimed a bit towards her white fans because how many black people can afford premium cable? However with the incredible success of welcome to sweetie pies with black viewers, it is aiming a bit towards blacks. Iyanla was on every Friday night after life class, there’s a major special about Roots coming up,and gayle. king was on every morning until she just got hired to do a show with Charlie rose on CBS.

    But it’s really hard to get ratings with black people. Oprah and the Cosby show were the exception, not the rule.

  • Koco

    I think negative comments regarding Oprah’s network success is just short of jealousy and envy from those making the unjusitifed statements. It is easy to judge from afar. But these conjectures are something she is used to. She was criticized early on in her television career merely because she did not fit the snobbish criteria of what makes a talk show host. And to everyone’s surprise, she conquered it by understanding that it takes time and patience to evolve into something great. We live in a fast-food mentality where naysayers are PAID to make unsubstantiated remarks to convince the viewing audience to see things their way. Well Oprah is queen of teaching others to have their own VOICE and own perspective on what is GOOD and productive in their lives. She has been a paramount model to the world for change…what have these journalists and critics done just in their own community to make a difference? Not much. Just the typical flapping of the gums-which is easy to do as stated earilier. So I’m sure Oprah will show how it’s done once again….but! This time I hope others who have the NERVE to criticize will put their money or energy for change where their EMPTY mouths are. Otherwise, juding Oprah’s network is obviously as stated before merely jealousy….and conjecture. But! I’m just sayin

  • Patrick Christofer Riley

    Excellent article!!!! Ironically I wrote and hand delivered both Oprah and Gayle a 3 page letter stating most of this a year ago. Oprah does possess the opportunity to be more than a channel appealing mainly to women. There is no reason why the book club or angel network should not be a show. Rosie is a great catch. But Rosie succeeded because she was based in NYC, which is where the show should move-immediatedly. I suggest you forward this article to Oprah and that those of us who truly appreciate and vaule what Oprah has done for all of us: regardless of race, class or even gender start a campaign to send ideas. Having visited the show several times and having friends who worked at Harpo, the place is very closed off. But if you manage to get to Oprah, I have seen first hand that change happens instantly.

  • Koco

    I enjoyed the show with Tyler Steven. It was poignent, honest and thought provoking. Who can bring such truth out in a person who have spent most of his life living in a fantasy drug-fest quandary? Oprah. Is there anyone else who can reach inside a person making him feel comfortable enough that he wants to “scratch it outta his head” and heal simulanteously? That would be a “no!” Me myself, I am TIRED of all these “fake” reality shows…which depicts the dysfunction of our society. Especially when there is no concrete resolution shown thereafter. I’m tired of BET reruns and it’s rating-generated attempt to allow most times illiterate and self-hating rappers display their mygnoist music video-which continue to degrade and minimize black women as they i.e. the rappers talk about the never ending life of violence, drugs and crime surrounding their community-its been going on far too long without any tangible answers to their problem. Can’t keep singing about it and not do anything about it. Cuz that’s circular thinking….right? But who cares as long as they are paying that almighty dollar.

    As a matter of fact, I don’t wanna know about all of Toni Braxton’s sisters damaged experiences-when it’s clear they are NOT gonna get therapy. Or the endless channels that depict rude and fowl behavior among women, including shows like bad girls, basketball wives, the housewives series-alladat! Just tired. Cuz we as a nation continue to be saturated in decaying dysfunction. Many of us have been convinced that it’s good programming when in fact it is the mirror reflection of what is currently going on in America. The only problem is we are not trying to rectify it enough and as a result our children think it’s normal behavior to be like this and therefore act out in schools becoming bullies and worse-young murderers. So for me…it’s much more than that. Oprah is a breathe of fresh air. She gives option to positive thinking and give us the power to make change in our own lives. These other networks persuade “blind” acceptance and that’s dangerous. Cuz the world is looking at us and what do they see? The inner fabric of America spiraling outta control.

    So to see real life people like Steven and others being honest about the mistakes they have made and the epiphany associated with those mistakes, give those watching it unfold on Oprah a form of hope. They can see themselves. They can see the human being. And isn’t that what we look for when we watch television? Someone who looks like us or someone who is going through the same thing as us? Cuz long gone are the days when television is strictly for entertainment, today it is used, along with the internet and other communication devices, as a vehicle to evolve and mold us into a higher level of living. But! We can not get there whole if we are constantly fighting with each other and participating in bad behavior. All this will do is keep us going backwards as broken people in our thinking while the WORLD continues to move forward, Oprah’s network understand this dynamics and is offering a new way of seeing our circumstances with self-empowerment that will and CAN ultimately change the dysfuntional behavior that is continously hurting America. Who else has done this? So. It’s up to us to be intelligent enough to recognize what is clearly in front of us….otherwise we will continue to view “bad” programming as good with no real life problem solving tools-which will be the “innate” circular downfall [called spiralling] of our great civilization. But! I’m just sayin

  • Jeri

    I agree with most of the comments regarding the OWN network but especially the product cycle. With celebrity and success its about supply and demand. No one is demanding to see Rosie, Tatum, The Judds, really? I can program better than that. Docu-dramas—there are some amazing stories to be seen that have already been produced. Oprah should be less afraid of attracting black people to her network-
    I work in broadcasting and as black people some of us refuse to work with other black people, hire black people, teach black people, give black people opportunities. Oh, I guess she made my point. Own, Only White Network.

    Personally, I’d like to see Oprah turn it back over to Discovery Health Channel.

  • http://www.lafondabaker.com LaFonda Baker

    Excellent article. You took the words right out of my mouth.

  • Socially Maladjusted

    To Oprah and her shallow followers . . .

  • http://nrayprof.blogspot.com/ Znendrii

    There comes a times when Black Folks, got to step outside the Plantation box , and say enough. Oprah has made her money , and did her female Bojangles dances to elevate White folks , now, ain’t it time she starts taking on real bold issues of national importance ,that pertains to her own race as well.
    Ecocide, the Jim Crow Prison Industrial Complex , a skewed Foreign Policy ,that fail to address global Afrikan affairs . Joblessness , and matters of love and fatherlessness in Afrikan American families. Low overdue Reparation.
    If I see her doing another 19 th century movie about slavery , I’ll throw up. Talk to me about modern day genocide , in a fast encroaching police state. America is a wonderful , country , but it’s lofty ideals are not being met. Some one needs to take a stand. I am optimistic.

  • http://cupofjo-jo.blogspot.com bk chick

    Thanks for this link…he was def speaking the truth..I think I may buy his book and see what its about

  • Nikki

    The supreme popularity of Oprah’s Lifeclass proves that this article is right on point. That’s what fans and viewers want to see on her network.

  • Kim J.

    Interesting article and comments. I do think she could have been a bit more aggressive in giving the network more of an “Oprah” flavor upfront. As the writer of the article states, we know what kind of fiction she likes, so it’s easy to imagine Oprah working with a good writer to produce a few good shows. I won’t touch her relationship/mentorship of Tyler Perry.

    I’m not sure about OWN being a premium channel…I don’t even know if I get it on Time Warner in NYC, however, where the channel sits makes me wonder if Winfrey’s semi-ownership of Oxygen and possibly the Discovery Channel have anything to do with channel placement and programming. (I’m not sure what her interests are in Discovery, but I thought they turned the Discovery Health channel into OWN. I used to write about cable, but it’s been years.) Also, remember her ties to the Discovery Channel during the release of the Planet Earth series.
    So, from a financial perspective, she might be legally obliged to do (or not do) certain things as it pertains to OWN’s competitiveness with Oxygen or Discovery. (including putting OWN on a premium or basic tier.) Remember this is the woman that puts her picture on every magazine cover, every month, as a way to sell magazines. She’s not stupid obviously, so I’m sure she can handle a cable network.

    If I were Oxygen, I wouldn’t want OWN coming up and stealing the thunder it took me years to acquire. Since I’m pretty sure Winfrey owns a minority stake at Oxygen, there had to be some “you can’t bastardize your other investment” talk when setting up OWN. Personally, I would have just brought out Oxygen and perhaps re-branded it…a little cleaner that way. She has the cash, as I don’t think the bulk of her wealth is tied up a ton of equity minus the network investments and Harpo. (like Steve Jobs with Pixar…) Folks who watch Oxygen would continue to do so, it’s just another O word. Plus, wasn’t a big fuss made over Winfrey’s part ownership in Oxygen when the network first launched?

    So if Winfrey has to sell her interest in Oxygen, that might take a while, considering the market/economy sucks and who’s really interested in buying part of a cable channel these days? Plus, Oxygen is probably doing well, she might not want to sell her interest. She’s a billionaire for a reason…

    Speaking of which, I’ll suggest that black and white women of all classes watched Oprah on TV, but something tells me that the white, upper middle class/upper class women were the ones to BUY her magazine and any other books or product she was hawking. That’s why she’s a billionaire. (Along with owning her own show and the syndication rights.)

  • pink

    Kim: I agree with your LAST paragraph wholeheartedly

  • pink

    DBG: I agree about the extra cost because I’ve had numerous people tell me they would love to see Oprah’s network shows; but they aren’t willing tp pay the extra bucks. Plus it was just announced that most cable companies are getting ready to increase their monthly fees. The irony is that price heights are going to just run more customers away. Who runs these marketing departments?!?

  • pink

    I hope Oprah hasn’t lost her midas touch…..but who knows. Fact is it’s very unusual for a show to be popular for 20 to 25 years like Oprah’s original show was. Oprah’s show was definitelly an exception. I do agree with Oprah’s recent comment that it generally takes a show a couple of years to get grounded, find their footing, and succeed. Thing is that in this day and time I don’t know if she will have the luxury of it taking that long. In this age of instant gratification I don’t know if people and advertisers will wait that long.

  • Denise

    Ms. Belton- I loved ALL of your ideas regarding OWN. Wouldn’t it be nice if somehow Ms. Winfrey could read this article? I liked a few of the shows from last year, but in all honesty, I haven’t been drawn this year. Not because I “hate” the channel, but, worse, because I forget about it. YIKES! That is so not good…she has such a wonderful platform and opportunity to create fresh programs and ideas, and tap into some amazing talent. [A hard hitting news show with Lisa Ling, TJ Holmes, and Soledad O'Brien would have been great.]

  • http:www.FashioNewsTV.Blogspot.com Monica

    Our Studio is looking for the NEXT DESIGNERS Fashion, Beauty or Accessories AD-SPACE Open Video Submission OK!

  • Lili

    I agree that having it on a Premium Package is a barrier. In my market, I pay an extra $55/mth to have premium over basic cable just to watch OWN. I’m a big fan of Super Soul Sundays, Next Chapter, and Master Class, but wish there was better shows on the rest of the week. Rosie, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Suzie Orman are great, but feel like they’re part of the past and OWN should create newer shows and work with some of the producers named in the article. A morning show with a panel discussing different topics, late night shows, book club show, etc would keep my interest more….

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